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Sperling outlines transportation future with more efficient vehicles, running on a mix of fuels

Daniel Sperling. Courtesy photo

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From page A1 | June 28, 2013 | 5 Comments

Transportation expert Daniel Sperling — who earlier this month received the 2013 Blue Planet Award for research in environmental sciences — outlined a pathway to a more sustainable future during a talk Thursday evening in Young Hall on the UC Davis campus.

Sperling, who is director of the university’s Institute for Transportation Studies, outlined what he projects will be a “soaring demand for vehicles” — and oil — during the next two decades, with some 2 billion vehicles in the world by 2020, rising to a figure approaching 3 billion by 2030.

Sperling said that as developing countries will be adding “hundreds of millions of new vehicles, and if you start mapping that onto India, Brazil, Indonesia and other countries, we are going to see real challenges. … More income equals more cars. People want more mobility. As they get richer, they buy more cars. We’ve observed this everywhere.”

If those vehicles continue to be fueled by gasoline, Sperling said, there will be an environmental downside because petroleum from tar sands, shale oil and shale gas “is carbon-intensive. It takes more energy to get it out of the ground and process it. We’re carbonizing our energy system.”

And this will lead to a worldwide situation in which “climate change is the greatest threat. There is lots of fossil energy (in the world), but if we follow that path, we are going to have catastrophic changes in climate.”

These climate changes would be “far worse in the rest of the world” as compared to the United States, he said.

“We can buy ourselves around a lot of these problems (here), by building a wall around San Francisco International Airport (to hold back rising sea levels), and moving agriculture.”

He noted that the Napa Valley wine region would be rendered inoperative if temperatures rise, making the region too hot for growing high-quality wine grapes. Mitigating these changes in a place like California “will be expensive, but we can probably do it,” he said. “But if you get to Bangladesh and India, they don’t have the resources.”

The pathway Sperling outlined involves reducing greenhouse gases by 50 to 80 percent by 2050, limiting the extent of global warming. He acknowledged that this will require “a huge change in our transportation systems, and our cities. I believe this is the greatest challenge facing humanity and the Earth,” he said.

“The challenge we face is unlike any challenge humans have faced before, transforming our entire society: our behavior, the design of buildings, the kind of energy we use, how we travel. We have never tried to do anything like this before.”

Sperling noted that transportation accounts for one-quarter of the carbon dioxide emitted in the world, and also accounts for two-thirds of oil consumption in the United States. He added that buildings are effectively the largest source of carbon dioxide emissions, since most electricity is used in buildings, and so much of the world’s electricity is generated by fossil fuels.

He said that currently, transportation is “96 percent dependent on oil.” He forecast that in coming decades, there will be a shift to “a wide mix of fuels to power mobility — biofuels, hydrogen, electricity.”

Sperling added that “cars of the future will be far more efficient, and will be powered mostly by electric drive,” resulting in a substantial reduction in gasoline consumption by cars, and he added that this transformation is already underway. “This is the biggest success story for the United States; vehicle efficiency is improving steadily,” he said.

But Sperling acknowledged that “for the U.S., it is going to be a while before we start significantly downsizing our vehicles. Mostly they are becoming more efficient and lighter — but they probably won’t be shrinking a lot.” Current government policy provides “no incentive for reducing the footprint” of vehicles — the amount of space covered between the vehicle’s wheels.

Sperling also called for a transformation of “mobility and land use.” He cited statistics saying that public transit accounts for only 2.5 percent of passenger travel in the United States, with airline travel accounting for 10 percent, “and almost all the rest is by car.”

He said American cities have “very low density,” but added that denser cities result in fewer vehicle miles traveled. He sees cities becoming denser,  since “new roads are now very expensive to build,” so there will be “very few cities putting new money into new roads.”

And this is contributing to a new trend: ”We are starting to see a flattening-out of vehicle use in rich countries — and this has surprised almost everyone,” Sperling said. He said ideas like “dynamic ride-sharing, smart paratransit and car-sharing” will become more important in years to come.

Sperling’s talk was part of the “Visionary” speaker series, co-produced by the Architects Institute of America’s Central Valley chapter and the United States Green Building Council’s Capital Branch. He received an award from those two groups at the end of his talk.

— Reach Jeff Hudson at jhudson@davisenterprise.net or 530-747-8055.

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Discussion | 5 comments

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  • Jeff MarchJune 29, 2013 - 8:13 am

    This research deserves attention, but it and numerous other studies about environmental problems (including shortages in water, food and energy production, as well as traffic congestion and encroachment of development on farmland) ignore the 5-ton mastodon in the room: human overpopulation. As long as humans throughout the world continue to reproduce prodigiously and irresponsibly, and as long as scientists, politicians and bureaucrats ignore that reality, we are just kicking the can down the road.

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  • Rich RifkinJune 29, 2013 - 1:25 pm

    "As long as humans throughout the world continue to reproduce prodigiously and irresponsibly ..." ...... Total Fertility Rates (TFR) all over the world are falling. The only big exception is with sub-Saharan Africa. Countries like Iran, Mexico, Brazil and India, which 20-30 years ago had rapid population growth, now have TFrs that are replacement level or below; and they are falling from there. Virtually all of the modern world has no population growth now, other than from immigration and immigrants. One Stanford researcher (see URL below) believes that the more women in 3rd World countries watch TV soap operas--a proxy for development and electrification--the lower their birth rates will be. ...... http://thebreakthrough.org/index.php/programs/conservation-and-development/population-bomb-so-wrong/

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  • Jeff MarchJune 29, 2013 - 2:55 pm

    Population Connection (formerly Zero Population Growth) reports: "The global population has doubled from 3.5 billion [in 1968], when ZPG was founded, to 7 billion today. Population growth rates have fallen around the world because of the success of voluntary family planning programs. But the global fertility rate is 2.5--still higher than the "replacement level" of 2.1 children per woman. At this rate, the world's population will grow to 11 billion by 2050 and nearly 27 billion by 2100."

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  • Rich RifkinJune 29, 2013 - 4:30 pm

    "At this rate, the world's population will grow to 11 billion by 2050 and nearly 27 billion by 2100." ....... Fortunately, the population of the world is NOT growing at that rate. Two weeks ago, the UN released its latest estimates of global population statistics. ...... "The current world population of 7.2 billion is projected to increase by 1 billion over the next 12 years and reach 9.6 billion by 2050, according to a United Nations report launched today, which points out that growth will be mainly in developing countries, with more than half in Africa." ...... Other than through immigration, there will be zero population growth in N. America and Europe and very little growth in the major countries of Asia (though Afghanistan is an outlier). ...... Keep in mind Jeff, I think your main point is correct: That our food, energy, fresh water and most other environmental problems are due in large part to having more than 7 billion people on earth, and this will get worse. However, it's important to understand that in most of the world, save sub-Saharan Africa, birth rates have fallen dramatically, and in many advanced countries they are below replacement level, and it's important to not pretend this dramatic change has not taken place. ...... I should also add that birth control availability is a factor. But it is itself less meaningful than economic and cultural factors which have employed more and more women aged 15-50 in the modern work force. Those same women not working or working in subsistence agriculture and not well educated results in the older, very high TFRs. So if sub-Saharan Africa makes some economic progress--and it has been lately, with very high macroeconomic growth--its TFR will fall, too, and maybe the 2050 population estimate will fall and fall again.

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  • Jeff MarchJune 29, 2013 - 5:15 pm

    Rich, that's encouraging news. I hope the latest projections that you cited hold firm -- and that young couples of child-bearing age gain enlightenment about the implications of large families in 21st-century civilization.

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